Think Wisconsin is just about big whitetails and cheddar cheese? Think again. With more than one-third of its population grounded in German ancestry, the Badger State has always been about the beer. And as we head toward another hunting season, here are some of the best Wisco-craft brews that go with prime whitetail venison.
A medium-rare venison steak, accompanied by farm-fresh eggs and hash browns, remains one of my favorite breakfasts of all time. This passion started in my teen years at weekend times spent at cabins in the Hazelhurst, Minocqua and Woodruff areas of Wisconsin’s North Woods.
And dinner? Certainly. Venison steaks were always on the menu at camp; usually enjoyed with our home-state beers — like Leinenkugel’s Original Lager from Chippewa Falls; Miller High Life from Milwaukee and/or Old Style from La Crosse — that is, before all of those brands were sold to larger, non-Wisconsin corporations.
At the time, there was no such thing as craft breweries and there were only five breweries in the whole state, all making the same type of beer – light lagers with no real hop or malt flavor.
Venison tastes so good that even these pallid mass-produced beers were okay served with it.
However, fast forward about 40 years and there is now an insane variety of beer available, not just in the whole United States, but also in Wisconsin. There are now more than 100 breweries and brewpubs in the Badger State.
This story assumes the majority of readers of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine may not be familiar with the craft brewery scene that has cropped up. However, instead of a Miller 60 or Bud Light, how about accenting your venison steak with beers that can give hints of bourbon, smoke, plum, brandy, rye, cherry or simply noticeable malt flavor?
You might be amazed that there are 750ml bottles of beer that sell for $10 – yet they are 10-percent alcohol or more, aged in oak barrels and are as complex as wines that sell for the same amount.
Although most breweries release tap-only, seasonal and one-off beers, the ones chosen for this story should be readily available in the larger liquor and grocery store chains in the state.
Here are some ground rules for the uninitiated. You will currently find store shelves dominated by a bewilderingly array of American pale ales and American India pale ales, which are the most-popular styles in the craft beer industry. They are marked by their strong pine and grapefruit characters from the hops used, and lots of bitterness.
While they are popular, they do not complement your venison. Why? The bottom line is, what food can you think of that would be improved by adding the taste of pine, grapefruit or excessive bitterness?
Maltier, minimally-hopped beers are the best accompaniment for red meats, and especially for venison.
Dark beers are even better for the stronger-flavored cuts of venison, such as you might use for stews. Dark does not necessarily mean they are strong in alcohol content – they are made with grains that are roasted longer, darkening them and providing roast flavors. Very similar to how coffee beans are treated.
They can also have background flavors of chocolate, caramel, plums, red wine, raisins and other delights depending on the type of malt and yeast used. The chocolate and caramel malts do not mean it makes the beer taste like a candy bar. The beers have minimal sweetness, and the chocolate and caramel notes are subdued, meaning they give extra flavor without interfering with the flavor of the food.
The Germans, with their centuries-old history of brewing, have had a long time to perfect mixing wild game with beer. The large German ethnic heritage in Wisconsin has resulted in a number of breweries making German styles that go particularly good with venison. Here are my picks for the 7 best from Wisconsin.
7. Dark Helmet by Titletown Brewing Co., Green Bay, Wis.
Titletown Brewing Co. in Green Bay (www.titletownbrewing.com) offers an award-winning dark beer that is not a stout or porter. Its Dark Helmet is a German-style schwarzbier that is pitch black, but without the intense coffee bitterness of most stouts. Instead, it features a mellower roast flavor. The beer is light on the palate and only 5 percent ABV.
As far as locating these beers, you will likely not find them in your local convenience store, so you’ll have to search in liquor stores or large grocery chains. However, nearly all breweries have Beer Finder links on their websites where you can find their products in stores and bars by typing in a zip code.
6. Wet Willy Oatmeal Stout by Pigeon River Brewing Co., Marion, Wis.
If you happen to be returning from a northern Wisconsin hunting trip and are on Highway 45 heading south, it’s worth stopping at Pigeon River Brewing Co. in Marion (www.pigeonriverbrewing.com), just north of Clintonville in Waushara County and right off the highway.
It’s Wet Willy Oatmeal Stout is not as dry and is maltier than Guinness, and at 6-percent ABV, is not thick or heavy. The use of oatmeal gives it a silky body and extra creamy head. The brewery currently has distribution in bottles, mostly in the northeastern Wisconsin area.
5. Belgian Red by New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, Wis.
Dark fruits also provide a delicious component to venison. New Glarus Brewing Co., of New Glarus (www.newglarusbrewing.com), adds a pound of Montmorency cherries to each 750ml bottle of its Belgian Red (4-percent ABV). The low-alcohol content is surprising for the complex flavor profile – dark malts, cherry, a bit of tartness – all that provide nice side notes to venison.
New Glarus also makes an excellent Smoke on the Porter (6.1-percent ABV) – a rich and silky-bodied dark ale with a smoke flavor that is more refined than simply tasting like liquid bacon. It uses barley smoked with cherrywood. It’s especially recommended as an addition to a slow-cooked venison stew or roast. Currently, it’s only available at the New Glarus brewery if you happen to be in the Madison area, though you might be able to find leftovers in stores from when it was last released commercially.
Smoked beers are a highly recommended style of beer to drink (and cook) with venision; however, they are specialty beers that only crop up randomly throughout the year. If you see a beer that mentions “smoke” on the label, try it out. The same if a label mentions chipotle or ancho peppers as an ingredient.
Chipotles are dried smoked jalapenos and anchos are large, dried dark purple peppers that give off flavors of plum and raisin during cooking. Beers using these peppers are generally not hot, instead leaving a slight tickle on the tongue and in the throat. The flavors are phenomenal, however.
4. Brewer’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout by Central Waters Brewing Co., Amherst, Wis.
Central Waters Brewing Co. of Amherst, Wis. (www.centralwaters.com), does a masterful job with its Brewer’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout. Besides being an impressive imperial stout, this 9.5-percent ABV ale provides the necessary bourbon notes to live up to its name. Despite its high alcohol content, it does not leave an unpleasant alcohol aftertaste.
3. Brewers Gone Wild by Tyranena Brewing Co., Lake Mills, Wis.
Tyranena Brewing Co., of Lake Mills (www.tyranena.com) has a “Brewers Gone Wild” series that is of stunning originality and quality.
Currently, it is offering Dirty Old Man (7.9-percent ABV), an imperial rye porter aged in rye whiskey barrels. The base porter is a solid beer itself, with nice roasted grain and chocolate flavors, and a slight tang in the aftertaste. The spicy rye gives an extra kick to venison without tasting like caraway seed.
The barrel aging also provides some nice oak and vanilla tones that are not overpowering. This is a well-blended and complex beer.
Barrel aging beer is a fun addition to the portfolios of breweries and the flavors imparted from oak, brandy, rum and even tequila barrels add exotic flavor to venison.
2. Autumnal Fire by Capital Breweing Co., Madison, Wis.
Capital Brewing Co., of Middleton, Wis. (www.capitalbrewery.com), makes a number of beers that could be matched with venison, but Autumnal Fire (7.8-percent ABV) stands out. It could be described as a doppel Oktoberfest, meaning a stronger version of the German style that is marked by the unique flavor of Vienna malts.
Its intense and rich malt flavors can also be used to provide a quick glaze to the venison that enhances the flavor.
1. Eastside Dark Lager by Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, Wis.
Lakefront Brewery of Milwaukee (www.lakefrontbrewery.com) makes an Eastside Dark Lager that is a German-style dunkel beer, simply meaning dark. Instead of light malts that give typical lagers their yellow or golden color, it includes the dark malts that give the slight hints of caramel, chocolate and roast notes.
Its 5.6-percent alcohol content provides that bit of extra bit of malt kick that blends so well with red meat and the roast flavor of the malt also complements the venison.
For those not quite ready to try out a dark beer, Lakefront also makes Riverwest Stein (5.6-percent ABV), a lighter-colored, mellow beer that still provides a malty background.
Todd Haefer is a Wisconsin native and professional journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He writes the Beer Man column for USA Today/Gannett Media. His columns can be accessed online at www.postcrescent.com/go-920/beer